Sleepwalking into war

A leaked document purporting to show Iran’s nuclear weapons testing, given credence by a respected global news agency; a claim, made public in a State of the Union address by the U.S. president, that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium yellowcake in Niger for Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program:

The two leaks are roughly a decade apart, yet both of them were false. What it means is that, 10 years on from the Iraq invasion, a war of choice that was launched by President George Bush on March 19, 2003, American policymakers should be extremely vigilant about sleepwalking into another one.

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Barack Obama this week will be discussing Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first visit to Israel as president. Israel has been accused of leaking to The Associated Press in November last year an “intelligence summary” and “Iranian” diagram apparently showing computer modelling of a 50-kiloton nuclear device; a subsequent investigation cast doubts on the document’s authenticity. 

Ten years ago, Israeli intelligence was also extremely active in sounding the alarm bells about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be a mirage. 

Everyone can make a mistake. It’s common currency to blame intelligence failures for the war that has left nearly 8,000 U.S. soldiers and contractors dead and is estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers a total $2.2 trillion, according to a new study by Brown University. It was obviously careless to give credence to information from a single Iraqi source known as “Curveball” who gave out incorrect information about the presence of mobile biological weapons labs inside Iraq.

But that’s only half the story. What happened in the run-up to the Iraq war, courtesy of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith, was the deliberate misleading of the American public and their elected leaders.

Yet in recent days, the main architects of the war who have spoken out on the 10th anniversary remain totally unapologetic. Oddly, it is hard to pinpoint how any of their careers on the think tank or lecture circuit might have suffered. Cheney said in a TV documentary, “The World according to Dick Cheney,” that “if I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.”

This was the guy who convinced many Americans that the Iraqi dictator collaborated with al Qaeda on the 9/11 attacks. It was a lie.

Then there was the Office of Special Plans, a politically motivated parallel intelligence unit independent of the CIA that reported to Rumsfeld as secretary of Defense. It peddled information from the exiled Iraqi group led by Ahmad Chalabi. Some congressmen feel rightly affronted at the way they were misled by the war-mongering evangelists in the Bush administration.

Dick Armey, the former House majority leader from Texas, is among them. “Did Dick Cheney ... purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue? I seriously feel that may be the case,” Armey told Barton Gellman, who profiled Cheney in a book called Angler in 2008. Armey ended up voting for the war, but he said that “had I known or believed then what I believe now, I would have publicly opposed the resolution right to the bitter end, and I believe I might have stopped it from happening.”

Sadly, 10 years after the start of the Iraq war, political amnesia has set in on Capitol Hill again. Do you think that after Iraq, we won’t get fooled again? Don’t bet on it. The next war of choice could be just around the corner.

Penketh is a freelance journalist specializing in international security and a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog. Karen Finney returns April 9.

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